It is rare for a fine dining chef to suddenly close his restaurant for months just to study the ingredients he wants to know about -- especially soon after the restaurant was awarded a Michelin star.
Kim Do-yun, head chef at the Michelin-starred Yun Seoul in Mapo-gu, Seoul, reopened his restaurant in March last year, eight months after closing its doors.
“I went to France, Germany, Italy and cities like New York just to study ingredients, like food that can give noodle aroma and certain scent,” Kim told The Korea Herald in an interview at his restaurant in Seoul on Feb. 14.
Kim, in his late 40s, has been cooking for 32 years, but his eagerness and obsession to know more about ingredients that can show different aspects and textures of Korean food never ceases.
“I like to experiment with Korean food, cooking to elevate the taste and aroma of food. On the other hand, I want to leave recipes I have tried as data so they can give others insights into Korean fine dining,” he said.
Most of these recipes incorporate dry aging, not just of beef or duck, but fish and even different kinds of mushrooms.
Inside his restaurant where dried fish heads hang from the ceilings and on the walls are four gigantic machines used for dry aging ingredients to allow him to control the humidity and temperature. Kim said ingredients like duck meat are going through “mummification” inside these machines. “Each machine costs at least 30 million won ($23,000),” he noted.
“By dry aging eel, the flavor of eel gets better and the eel is rid of a muddy smell. Same goes for flatfish. Fishy smell can disappear by trying this method – which I came up with on my own,” he said, adding that Korean food traditionally uses a semi-dried method to not only store food for long periods, but also to enhance texture.
Kim said the scent of food today is not as strong as it was when he was young.
“When I was young, the smell of perilla oil was very strong, not only because people used good ingredients back then, but also because the seeds have now been developed and diversified. There is just too much nuttiness without its unique scent. It’s almost similar to sesame oil,” he said.
“Now, only chefs of my generation can tell the difference,” Kim added.
Part of his dream as a chef is to take more time to age the ingredients to prepare the best quality food.
“Currently, so many menus are dependent on fancy ingredients. But I’d like to expand my recipes to feature natural spices that can add unique scents and flavors to Korean food, such as dry aged fishes,” he said.
“One thing is clear. Good food comes with time. It is time that builds up the quality of fine dining food. Instead of just cooking meat with recently butchered pork or beef, cooking meat after eight to nine weeks of aging will make it taste much better,” he said, adding that his laid-back and calm personality is transferred to the food he cooks.
Now the chef is on a mission to launch noodles with a scent.
“In South Korea, majority of noodle makers put additives to noodles so they all taste similar, without a signature scent. I hope to open a noodle store in the future, first starting with mass-producing such noodle within the first half of this year,” he said.
This is the fifth and final article in a series of interviews with Korean fine dining chefs who are building legacies. -- Ed.